About Lent and the Great Fast
Updated: Feb 27, 2021
Lent is the 40-day long period from ‘Clean Monday’ to the Friday before Palm Sunday, a week before Easter (or Pascha). Originally, Lent was a period of preparation for people wanting to be Christian (catechumens) before their baptism at Pascha. During this time, the catechumens would pray, fast, and generally repent, so that they could make a fresh start once they were baptized. The number 40 has a symbolic meaning: the Israelites spent 40 years in the wilderness (Ex. 16:35); Elijah abstained from all food for 40 days as he travelled to Mt. Horeb (3 Kg. 19:8); and of course Christ fasted for 40 days and nights after His baptism (6th Jan). Already-baptized Christians used to only fast during Holy Week, the week before Pascha, but when they saw how helpful Lent was to those preparing for baptism they wanted to join in as well! So today Lent is a time of preparation for all the Church. We should see Lent as a time to repent – change – and arrive at Pascha ready to renew our baptismal vows, as though we were born again (Jn 3:3-5).
The word ‘Lent’ comes from the Old English meaning ‘Springtime’; the Great Fast is not a dark, wintery time of starvation and sadness, but a bright time of illumination and growth.
The preparation before the preparation
Weeks before the beginning of Lent, the Church sets aside time to contemplate how to repent, because repentance is the doorway to Lent, the starting-point on the journey to Pascha.
Each Sunday before Lent, therefore, has a particular theme – with associated hymns, prayers, and Bible readings. By spending time contemplating these themes, we can properly get ready for Lent, and help defend against some of the negative ‘side-effects’ that can accompany fasting.
4th Sunday before Lent: The Publican and the Pharisee (Epistle reading: 2 Tim 3: 10-15; Gospel reading: Luke 18:9-14), followed by a week of no fasting.
3rd Sunday before Lent: The Prodigal Son (Epistle: 1 Cor 6: 12-20; Gospel: Luke 15:11-32)
2nd Sunday before Lent: The Last Judgement (Epistle: 1 Cor 8:8-9:2; Gospel: Matt 25:31-46), followed by a week of abstaining from meat.
Final Sunday before Lent: Expulsion of Adam & Eve from Paradise, also known as Forgiveness Sunday (Epistle: Rom 13: 11- 14:4; Gospel: Matt 6:14-21), followed by the first week of the Great Fast.
Great care needs to be taken in approaching this long period of abstinence so that it can be our ‘springtime’ of spiritual growth and not a cause of irritability, depression or worst of all: pride.
So, the ‘rules’: the fast of Lent means abstinence from meat, fish, dairy, eggs. Except at weekends, we also abstain from olive oil and ‘wine’ (i.e. alcohol); generally we should also eat less often. We don’t need to worry about what someone is ‘giving up for Lent’ because we are all giving up the same things. The fast is often lessened for the elderly, ill, pregnant or young mothers and people with infirmities. Talking to our priest or spiritual father a person can decide how to fast in a way that leads to spiritual growth. As a saying from the monasteries goes: ‘keep your eyes on your own plate and not that of your brother’. How we fast in Lent is a private matter.
Always remember, the main aim of fasting is to remind us of our dependency on God. This process begins by first stripping us of any dependency, addiction or reliance we may have on over-consumption; i.e. the sin (or passion) of gluttony:
“Through gluttony we underwent the first stripping, overcome by the bitter-tasting fruit, and we became exiles from God. Let us turn back to repentance and, fasting from food that gives us pleasure, let us cleanse our senses on which the enemy makes war… Our food shall be the Lamb of God…Who disperses the darkness of ignorance by the Light of His Resurrection.”
- Vespers on Sunday of Last Judgement
We will feel hungry. We will feel discomfort in the beginning. This is not done so God rewards us but so that we realize our mortality and that without God we cannot do anything. This realization leads us to ask God for help – to pray. Fasting without prayer is just a diet and so both are needed to have a fruitful Lent. So as we change what we eat during Lent we must also increase our prayer. Reading the Bible aids us in this. Normally there is a Gospel and Epistle reading set for every weekday – two daily readings. In Lent, there are three: all of them from books of the Old Testament and covering important themes:
The Book of Genesis: describes the fall of man and his expulsion from paradise, and how fallen the world became. Later the readings cover the story of Joseph, who like Christ was ‘innocent’ in his sufferings.
The Prophet Isaiah: begins with a call for fasting and repentance before going on to promise Christ, Whose Resurrection we celebrate at Pascha.
The Book of Proverbs: gives us ethical instruction and reminds us that Lent is not just a time for ‘feelings’ or emotions of repentance, but practical moral effort.
As well as prayer and fasting, charity can also be increased during Lent. In the 2nd century writing Shepherd of Hermas we are taught that the money saved by eating less, or less luxurious foods, during Lent should be spent on the poor. Your parish may have a food-bank collection during Lent – take part in this or give directly to a local food-bank. Charity can also include giving time for someone in need or who is lonely. Making sure that no part of the ‘trinity’ of fasting, prayer and charity is neglected is the best way to ensure our Great Fast is profitable.
Finally, we must remember that Lent is a time for joy and not gloom. This is emphasized many, many times in the hymns of Lent. This is because, as St John Chrysostom said: “Shame comes after sin, but boldness and joy comes after repentance.” Repentance is the aim of the Great Fast. Yes, our actions and weaknesses may make us sad, but when it leads to a change in our life and a better relationship with God, how can we be sad?
All mortal life is but one day, so it is said, to those who labour with love.
There are forty days in the Fast: Let us keep them all with joy.
- Matins on the first Monday of Lent
So remember: the fast is there to help you; do not neglect prayer and charity; and be joyful!
The springtime of the Fast has dawned,
The flower of repentance has begun to open.
O brothers and sisters, let us cleanse ourselves from all impurity
And sing to the Giver of Light:
Glory be to Thee, who alone loves mankind.